“Til Death Do Us Part” proves Harley Quinn an unusually ambitious and adult take on animated superheroics.
This recap of Harley Quinn (DC Universe) Season 1, Episode 1, “Til Death Do Us Part”, contains spoilers.
Of all the mistakes I’ve made recently, this morning’s was the funniest. That’s when I sat down with my superhero-obsessed five-year-old daughter to watch Harley Quinn, the new 13-episode DC Universe animation that I, naively, assumed would be in the same vein as Batman: The Animated Series. And I was wrong — very wrong. That (mostly) family-friendly cartoon from which Harley cartwheeled into Batman canon in the first place might get frequent nods and references in Harley Quinn Episode 1, and this new show — like all superhero animations since — owes a debt to it. But free from Saturday morning sensibilities, “Til Death Do Us Part” opens with torrents of foul-mouthed abuse and the Joker (Alan Tudyk) gleefully manipulating a ripped-off face so that it seems to be talking. As my horrified offspring can attest, this isn’t for kids.
Perhaps I should have researched the show a bit, or at least read the press release, but where’s the fun in that? With the stunned child ushered quickly from the room, I set about trying to decipher exactly what Harley Quinn Episode 1 was up to, to surprising results. Despite its anarchic attitude and occasionally try-hard edginess, “Til Death Do Us Part” is pretty unmistakably a breakup comedy. It’s about Harley (Kaley Cuoco in this version) realizing she’s the Joker’s put-upon plaything and deciding, with the help of her roommate, Poison Ivy (Lake Bell), to become her own, empowered woman.
That involves some costume changes that’ll be fun for those in the know, and some enthusiastically over-the-top violence and set-pieces involving Batman (Diedrich Bader), Riddler (Jim Rash), and a haggard Jim Gordon (Christopher Meloni), seen here childishly flicking the Bat-signal on and off. Harley’s emancipation takes up the entire episode, but that’s good; the catharsis that comes from Harley breaking free of the Joker’s emotional shackles has been preheated by her decades-long status as his abused girlfriend — a designation she’s eager to break away from in “Til Death Do Us Part”.
Poison Ivy — who, for the record, has a sentient plant in her apartment played by J.B. Smoove — helps Harley comes to this realization by setting up an elaborate supervillain scenario in which Harley and Batman are both dangling over pools of acid and Joker has to choose who to save. The outcome is obvious, even if it’s fun to see how Harley Quinn Episode 1 pokes a bit of fun at our expectations for such things.
While the near-constant swearing can get a bit much, the show’s adults-only vibe allows Tudyk to play with a more spiteful and sadistic Joker, and its frankness in matters of sexuality and femininity — not to mention Kuoco’s recognizable voice — allows Harley Quinn to play like a female-focused sitcom that actually has something cutting to say about relationships, personal reinvention, and systemic sexism in comics, television, and real life.
Not all of the jokes land, not all of the ideas are good, and not all of the myriad contradictions and idiosyncrasies work as intended. Harley Quinn is wildly swinging its own hammer, hoping it’ll smack against something funny or meaningful. It often does and deserves credit for the hit-rate, but even more than that it deserves recognition as a genuinely ambitious and unusual take on the genre.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.